Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Yzerman's Backloaded Career Almost Happened In Ottawa

When Steve Yzerman joined the Detroit Red Wings, in the summer of 1983, an 18 year-old drafted from the Peterborough Petes, the Tigers' boys weren't blessed yet, the Pistons' Isiah Thomas had yet to qualify for his first playoffs, and the Lions were still six months way from becoming the victims of Eddie Murray's crooked right leg in the playoffs in San Francisco.

Ronald Reagan was president, "Cheers" hadn't even been on the air, Michael Jackson was gloved and several shades browner, you didn't need a second mortgage for a tank of gas, and "M*A*S*H" hadn't signed off yet.

And the Red Wings had made one playoff appearance in their past 13 seasons. Things were about to get a little better.

Yzerman, who retired yesterday after 22 seasons in Detroit, was hardly the person you'd have imagined resurrecting an entire hockey franchise by himself. He was shy -- oh, so shy -- and barely old enough to drink alcohol legally when coach Jacques Demers, in perhaps the greatest act of clairvoyance in Detroit sports history, named the 21 year-old Yzerman as his captain in October 1986.

Three Octobers earlier, only a few weeks into his NHL career, I spotted Yzerman in the Red Wings dressing room after a win. I was a cub reporter for the Michigan Daily. All the media folks were surrounding players like John Ogrodnick and Brad Park. And standing behind me was this teenager, for goodness sakes, who dressed quietly and by himself. Microphones and notepads weren't anywhere near his cubicle.

I engaged him in conversation, this shy youngster with the funny-sounding name that began with "Y". Getting words out of Steve Yzerman back then was like pulling a hockey player's teeth.

Little did I, or anyone for that matter, know that #19 would be the savior of pro hockey in Detroit.

It didn't come without blood, toil, tears, and sweat, though. Steve Yzerman's career was terribly backloaded. All his pain and suffering of losing and disappointment mostly happened in the front end of his career. The Red Wings didn't appear in a Cup Final uintil his 12th season. They didn't actually win it until season #14.

During those first 11 seasons, sometimes the whispers would start. Yzerman was too much of a one-way player. He wasn't the leader to take the team over the hump. He was going to be traded -- and that would be a good thing, perhaps.

But the worst thing -- and it wasn't said in a whisper but in a strong pitch -- was that they said Steve Yzerman cannot win.

They said it after first round defeats in 1993 and 1994, to Toronto and San Jose, respectively. They said it after the Finals sweep at the hands of the New Jersey Devils in 1995. Some even said it after the Wings lost the Conference Finals to the Colorado Avalanche in 1996.

The apex of this madness came in the summer of '94, when rumors began -- encouraged by coach-turned GM/coach Scotty Bowman -- that Yzerman was about to be traded to Ottawa. The Senators were not the powerhouse that they are now, back in 1994. They were the laughing stock of the league -- the worst NHL team by far. And Yzerman was being shipped there -- in the newspapers, on television, on the radio. And he would have been dealt to Ottawa on the Internet, too -- but Al Gore hadn't perfected it yet.

Some were aghast, at the thought of an Yzerman-to-Ottawa deal. One of the aghast was certainly Yzerman himself. His father had been a prominent politician in the province, but that would have been little consolation, going from one of the league's best teams to its absolute worst. The Senators finished '93-94 with a wretched 14-61-9 record. They scored 201 goals, gave up 397. And the Red Wings would seriously consider trading their captain of eight seasons THERE??

Turns out it was all a ploy. Bowman, trying to give his captain a jolt, never seriously considered the deal, it was found out years later. The coach was looking to install a more defensive-oriented system, and he wanted to make sure Yzerman bought into it. The other players, Scotty knew, would tumble into line if Yzerman was on board. Scotty was sly like a fox. Everything worked out just fine. Yzerman turned himself into one of the best two-way players in the game, and two seasons later, the Wings won the first Bowman/Yzerman Cup.

Well, lookie there, the naysayers are presumed to have said -- you CAN win with Steve Yzerman after all.

He is gone now -- retired and out of skates for the first time since he was in diapers. It's an apt distinction, because there are zillions of fans who were diapered when Yzerman made his Red Wings debut in October 1983.

He scored a goal in his very first game, by the way. An NHL goalscorer before he was a legal drinker.

Today, we're all sober.

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